Reading Geography

As February ends, I start looking ahead to the March book theme—geography. So broad as to be overwhelming, even if one limits oneself to one’s own books. (For those of you who don’t follow my reading proclivities, I have a lot of books—a few thousand. The book themes serve to bring some of the older titles to the head of the class, and I’ve discovered some gems.)

Back to topic: Geography. Going through the books I had pulled off the shelves (without a thorough scan) I found a lot of America. So I’ve decided to focus on America for the geography theme (all of a sudden I had a throwback to sixth-grade, where I decided to focus on Fort Snelling for my history theme project—don’t know where to go with that but remind you I’m in Minnesota, which is home to Fort Snelling, which we visited when I was a kid).

I’ve already started a nonfiction book in the March Geography theme. I finished a nonfiction book a few days ago, and towards the end of the month, I always like to move ahead into the next theme. As I perused titles, I noticed America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth. I’ve a keen interest in economics and the balance of consumerism and sustainability. I’m not against buying things, but living in our consumer culture (70% of the U.S. economy is based on consumption), which is basically just getting people to buy more things, has gotten a bit over the top for me. So I’m interested in different economic models (anything downwards of 70% is a good start).

And that, really, was the start of the America theme. Also in the nonfiction arena that pulled me in this direction:

  • What Is America? Ronald Wright
  • Janesville: An American Story, Amy Goldstein
  • Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, Stephen G. Bloom
  • Heartland, Sarah Smarsh
  • Still Life in Harlem, Eddy L. Harris
  • American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever
  • American Wasteland, Jonathan Bloom

Fiction also has a number of stars. I am looking forward to:

  • Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
  • The Kingdom of Ohio, Matthew Flaming
  • Kitchens of the Great Midwest, J. Ryan Stradal
  • An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
  • Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Poetry is also falling into my subtheme, at least a little bit, with:

  • American Smooth, Rita Dove
  • American Primitive, Mary Oliver
  • The San Francisco Haiku Anthology

So I have decided to focus on America for the March reading theme; no generic city, country, state or territory (that could be its own theme for sure).

But America gets old, and I’d like to take a vacation or two. I have several options:

  • Versailles, Kathryn Davis
  • Murder in the Marais, Cara Black
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway
  • Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi
  • A Palestine Affair, Jonathan Wilson
  • South Pole Station, Ashley Shelby
  • The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins

March looks promising. Thirty-one days. So long compared to February. And every day, three more minutes of sunlight. Happy reading all—spring is around the corner!

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Hate Speech: Liberal Style

“All Republicans should die.”

That’s what a liberal friend said to me at lunch a few weeks ago. It gives one pause, doesn’t it? Well, at least I hope it does, whether you’re liberal, conservative, in between or above or below.

I’ve been hearing a lot of such sentiments from my many liberal friends. (Mind you, I’m a liberal myself, which is why I have so many liberal friends.)

I am of an age where I think of the Democrats and the liberals as the party of love. But over the last two years in particular, it’s gotten to a point where politics are off limits in many of my friendships. It’s a rabbit hole of negativity.

I am particularly concerned when people my friends use broad terms, like “all Republicans.” Like assuming that every asshole on the road is a Republican (I know several liberals who are bad drivers and one that might qualify as an asshole—on the road, I mean). It’s the sweeping nature of the condemnation that bothers me.

Republicans, like Democrats, come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I happen to have some Republicans that I respect in my life. My father is one of them (even though he’s dead now). He was super conservative and I was radically liberal, but we always managed to find common ground (sometimes with difficulty, and most often in the realm of economics). And I learned some of the things about why he was conservative (e.g., a small-business owner dealing with one-size-fits-all government regulations) and that has helped me to understand conservatives in a small way.

Which is to say, they are not all alike. I expect there are as many reasons for being conservative as there are for being liberal.

And for this reason, I suspect that liberals and conservatives might have a lot more in common on a lot of issues than they realize. We box each other into categories and demonize the worst in each other. So easy to do, and almost expected. A knee-jerk reaction.

A potential remedy: The next time you’re in a situation with someone on the opposite side of the political fence, spend some time finding what you have in common. It might not be as hard as you think. Talk about books or health care. Or maybe the number of people in prison. Or the price of soybeans.

Just…talk.

Coffee Break

This morning when I plugged in the coffee maker, it made a huge sparky flash and then a fire. Not a big fire, a small, 2-3” fire from the outlet (I thought). I pulled the plug, the fire was gone. I’m sure it was less than a couple of seconds between the spark and the end of the fire, but it seemed like a long time to me—one of those times where your brain shuts out everything else and 100% of your attention is focused on this flame that could burn down your entire house.

I wasn’t sure if it was the outlet or the appliance. I toyed with plugging something else into the faulty outlet, or trying the faulty coffee maker on a different outlet. And then I decided I needed to have some caffeine before conducting any kind of experiment that might involve fire (and a spouse with a fire extinguisher nearby might not be a bad add).

I looked in the fridge, hoping for a Coke, but no colas to be found. I settled for iced tea, and went to read the morning paper on the front porch.

Halfway through the front page, it occurred to me that I could boil water and pour it into the coffee filter myself. It was not quite as fast as pouring it into the reservoir, but it took less than 10 minutes, and I had fresh coffee to accompany the morning paper.

In the way that one does, as I was reading the paper, I was wondering if I should get a new coffee maker at a Kitchen Window kind of place or a Herberger’s kind of place. Then I remembered a friend who has several coffee makers (I found this out when I was helping her clean out her basement, and when I suggested she get rid of these excess coffee makers, she wanted to keep them for friends who might need said coffee makers). I texted her this morning to see if she still has this abundance, but have not heard back.

In the meantime, after a cup or two of coffee, I took a closer look at the coffee maker. Holy cow! (We actually do say this in the Midwest—at least some of us do.) The cord (rubber/plastic) was half severed. The miracle of caffeine. No need for an experiment or fire extinguishers, the culprit is the cord.

I love this little coffee maker. It’s the mini size you often get in hotels. It has no frills—no timer, no clock, no auto-off; it doesn’t even have an on/off button. And while it’s true, I do need to make sure I unplug the coffee machine before I leave the house, I don’t have to reset the time/programming every time the power goes out.

Also going on in my background is a Wendell Berry book that I recently finished, Our Only World. God bless Wendell Berry, reminding me that reducing consumption is a good thing.

I love this little coffee maker. It has a broken cord. I called a couple of nearby hardware stores and one of them said they would take a look. I brought it in today. They estimate it will cost $25 or so to fix the cord.

I know I can get a new coffee maker at Target for less than $25, with a clock, auto-off, and possibly an espresso feature. But I don’t need any of those things. I just want coffee in the morning.

And while I’m 99% sure that they’ll be able to fix the cord, the other 1% of me is not uncomfortable with spending 10 minutes in the morning making coffee.

What Can I Give You?

I had lunch with a friend the other day, and she brought me a gift bag—a couple of magazines and a few bottles and jars that she knew I would find useful in my herbal work.

We had a good long lunch, including a discussion of South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami. We have a bit of a tradition of meeting and discussing a Murakami book at Pepito’s in Minneapolis in February.

Murakami stretches your mind. Or maybe it’s your imagination. Or maybe he prods the id. It leads to good and sometimes far-ranging discussion. If you like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). If you don’t like odd fiction, you might like Murakami (start with Norwegian Wood). Murakami is one of the few authors whose books I will read and reread. Always something new, something—huh?

We skirted around politics. Not that we have major differences, mind you. But rather because last time we got together we did get into politics, and it felt like we were swallowed by a whirlpool and two hours later spit out the other side. Not that we disagreed or argued, but almost like a two-hour vent. Or even a two-hour rage. We were both disquieted by that.

Our get-togethers are usually very happy making, with talk of books and food, writing and friends and family, and possible personal concerns we might want a bit of help working through. Usually I go home all relaxed and happy and feeling like my soul has been nourished (corny but true, so there). But not after the politics for two hours. Even agreeing, it drained us. So we have put a moratorium on talking about politics. (Although since we make the rules, we can make exceptions if we think it’s important.)

As the conversation moved into other areas, my friend mentioned her upcoming Lenten project (she does a Lent thing every year; I kind of like the idea, but I’ve not yet done it myself). Okay, I’m just going to very pridefully say that she told me that I inspired her Lenten project.

Specifically, she said the occasional things I send her in the mail (I love using snail mail; I visit the post box several times a week) are a special moment in her day (personal mail being relatively rare these days). So she’s decided to send a card to someone on each day of Lent. A friend, a relative, a mentor, someone she admires.

Can we focus on this most excellent idea for a moment? Okay, I am not of the Lenten variety, but don’t most people typically give something up for Lent? And I guess my friend is doing that, in that she is giving up a bit of time in writing the notes. But more importantly, at least to my wee mind, it’s like she’s turning the idea of Lent inside out. Instead of taking away, she’s giving.

I love it when my friends humble me.

She mentioned that she probably needed to get cards for her project, and being rather Lent uninformed, I asked when (soon) and how long (40 days). I knew I had a few cards I could give her and I passed them on after our long lunch.

But later in the evening as I was reading, it niggled. I have so many cards. I have a huge variety of cards (lots that I receive free in the mail from charities, but also just a lot of cards accumulated over the years). And then I remembered a gift that a different friend had sent me a couple of years ago, when I was rather early into my postcard project. She sent me a package of 50 unique postcards. I was awash in delight—so many new possibilities for matching message to postcard.

So I went through the card drawer and pulled together a package of cards. A wide variety that I hope will cross a variety of folk. And I remembered the gift economy—giving what you have when you can. You want, I have, I give.

I have so much more of so many things than I need. Sometimes I latch onto things simply because they could be useful some day. In the gift economy, if my friend needs cards and I have cards, I give her some of mine. Maybe she’ll like them, maybe not (I ask her to return the cards she doesn’t use) but she doesn’t have to go out shopping, and I’ve gotten rid of a bit of my surplus of cards.

But the gift economy is more than that. When I was at my best with it, every time I got together with someone, I tried to bring them a gift. Something small usually—a jar of ginger jam, a magazine, or some rhubarb. A poem. An article from the newspaper. It’s a way of saying, I value you. I think about you. It’s nice to give people things—sharing what you have, or just thinking, what might they want or appreciate that I happen to have?

It feels good. I have a couple of friends who do this occasionally, and I always feel very special. I feel lucky, and blessed. And when I give something to someone, I always feel happy and a little bit lightened.

Note: The gift doesn’t have to be something physical, it could be a service, or a favor. The most common around here is shoveling walks. Minimally one tries to do at least a few inches over the border of the neighbor’s walk, but copying my neighbor across the street, last year I started shoveling both my neighbors’ sidewalk up to their personal walk (about half the full sidewalk). This year, someone shoveled our front walk three times. That has never happened before.

The gift economy: I swear, it’s contagious.

The Things We Do

After the election, I decided to focus more on things here on the home front—at the neighborhood and city as well as the state level. It started with volunteering to “adopt” a storm drain. There were six at the intersection half a block north of our house, and we could pick whichever one we wanted. But it was just too hard to choose, so we adopted all six. This winter with the frequent thaws, we’ve been out there chopping out the snow and ice so the water can drain. You might be surprised at how difficult it can be to find a storm drain in the winter. And when you find one, you’d think the one across the street would be right across the street, right? Well, no.

But it’s always rewarding—good exercise and a sense of doing something in the community. And sometimes people stop and thank us. The bus drivers almost always wave. That feels good too. We’ve also started shoveling out both ends of our alley (where the snow always seems to accrue). We reap a very direct advantage from this, so it is not exactly a civic deed. Nonetheless, one day when we were clearing out the snow, a guy stopped his truck and asked if he could spell one of us for a while—he just wanted to help out. Maybe we will even get to meet more of our neighbors!

The other thing we’ve done right here in our neighborhood is volunteer for our small urban orchard. It is just starting out (no fruit until next year) but we will help to water and mulch and other sundry tasks as assigned. After the trees start to bear, we will also help with harvest and gleaning. It is quite an exciting project—a variety of fruit trees, including apple, crabapple, plum, pear, peach, and cherry. I wonder what a Minnesota peach will taste like?

There are a few town hall meetings coming up—two of them held/sponsored by my state senator and representative. There is also a town hall meeting in February on the minimum wage of $15 for the city of Minneapolis. I absolutely want a higher minimum wage, but I don’t know that $15 and just for the city of Minneapolis is the way to go. Geographically speaking, Minneapolis is a relatively small part of the 7-county metro area. And with a population of approximately 394,000, we are also a relatively small portion (approximately 13.5%) of the population. I need to learn more.

I have stuck to my New Year’s resolution to send a postcard a week to our new Senate majority leader. I have already heard back from him—not wordy responses but acknowledging my concerns (in this case, responding to two separate postcards, one about infrastructure and the other about healthcare). I did not actually expect him to respond to my postcards. I don’t think I’ll tell him that. I’ve also written about funding the University of Minnesota; a potential crackdown on protesters—potentially making it a felony with some serious financial implications; a suggestion that the state NOT invest in developing a from-scratch computer program to distribute health insurance premium rebates (as that has not worked so well in the past—the build from scratch part); and the definition and use of the word “exponential” (sorry, but it’s numbers AND words, an intersection I can’t ignore).

The acknowledgment has further spurred me, and I have chosen to believe that he actually appreciates these postcards. I know this is a glass half-full to overflowing viewpoint, but why not? I am always respectful and try to send interesting postcards (and a nice variety—I have scads that I’ve collected for the haiku project).

Anyway, I should have made the resolution to send AT LEAST one postcard a week, because I have already sent 10! They are addressing so many things in the Legislature (as well they should, leaving so many things undone last year) that I feel I can’t wait a week on some things. I sent three postcards on healthcare, and the legislation is now signed and done. It is a decent piece of legislation, and both sides compromised. The Republicans put some interesting things on the table that I want to learn more about: a farmers health insurance co-op, and a reinsurance program. Since I am one of the 5% that purchases my health insurance independently on the market, I watch this issue very carefully.

Not long ago I got together with a friend for lunch. We were talking about things we were doing since the election. She has doubled her volunteer commitment at a local nonprofit, working a shift two days a week instead of one. She’s made phone calls to national House and Senate leaders (and our reps as well) on various issues. She participated in the women’s march in St. Paul.

It wasn’t a tallying, it wasn’t a comparison, and often it wasn’t even the focus of the discussion. But as we moved on to the second beer, I realized that even just between the two of us, we are doing quite a lot! Lots of contact with government representatives (she more national, I more local), local involvement, even drinking local beer. Yes, I know. Civic to the bone.

A few days later, after reading the newspaper I was a bit despondent. I went online and signed two petitions (one sponsored by a Minnesota senator, one by moveon.org) and sent a congratulatory postcard to the Senate leader for the healthcare legislation which was actually quite a good compromise. But it felt so little.

And then I remembered the lunch with my friend, and when it all added up, it had seemed like a lot. And I thought it might be inspiring to track that for two or four years. So I emailed my friend and another good friend of ours with this idea: Report in on what you’re doing. It will give each of us other ideas, as we have different approaches and different areas of priority. Even if each of us did one thing a week, at the end of a year, that would be more than 150 actions. It’s not meant to be competitive, but I do hope it challenges us. And I know it will encourage us, just having this list of ongoing things that we’re doing, small and large: a postcard sent, a phone-call to a senator, attending a town hall meeting, a petition, an email, a volunteer gig, a letter to the editor, a march, a poem.

This is not a partisan thing. Everyone can do something to make community stronger, to make their voice heard, to make sure everyone’s voices are heard. Start where you’re comfortable. Maybe make a pact with a friend, keep a list. Do one thing this month, this year, tomorrow.

These are the things we do.

When it comes down to it, perhaps they’re the only things that matter.

In Praise of the Handkerchief

My spouse is a handkerchief person. I thought this was quaint when we met. I have since experienced the practicality of the practice (particularly in movie theaters when I have forgotten tissue).

Not long ago when we were visiting my mom, I asked her if she had any of dad’s old hankies left. I thought perhaps I could replenish the spousal supply, and plus I’ve always loved a big hankie for myself when I have a really bad cold, most especially an old and very soft hankie. She did indeed have a supply and shared some, and then asked if I wanted any of hers. Compared to my dad’s, they were so small, so dainty. I couldn’t imagine honking into one of those things. It would feel like desecration or something.

But the next time we’re visiting my mom, I have a little sneezing attack and I’m going through tissue after tissue. I remember the hankies and ask Mom if I can have one of her handkerchiefs after all. I grabbed a small soft one mostly at random, and it was perfect for my slightly runny sneezy nose. To my surprise the next day, it looked and felt perfectly soft and clean. So I used it for another day. I had thought handkerchiefs would get icky right away, like tissues do. I was finding out different.

The next time we went to see my mom, I asked if I could have a few more. She said sure, and this time we took them out and I looked at them more closely. She must have at least 50 handkerchiefs. Beautiful, so many of them. Most were white, but not all. Some had embroidery around the edges. Some had some very serious needlework (I know nothing about needlework so I don’t know what kind, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if at least some of them weren’t stitched by people she knew). I took several (I believe she allowed me six). I was thrilled, and she was kind of thrilled that I was into her hankies.

Once I had several, I used them a lot more. One in the purse and another in a pocket. I found (not surprisingly) that I was decreasing my use of tissues. (I wish I had thought to measure it before and after, but ah well.) I mentioned this to a friend and she was a little intrigued, and I asked her if she wanted one of my mom’s handkerchiefs, just to see if it was something that might appeal (we are both into reducing waste), and she said yes.

When I relayed this to my mother, she said, “Oh! Well then you’ll have to get more next time you come up!” And this time we went through them more slowly, and I took many. Mostly white, mostly soft. But almost none plain white. A border, a pattern, some lace. Lots of flowers. But there were a few that were not white: purple, black, brown, bright red, turquoise. I’m forgetting some. It felt like a small array of history spread out on her bed. It was so fun.

What a thing we have lost: the art, beauty, and utility of the handkerchief.

It turns out my friend did indeed enjoy the handkerchief. With my new bounty, I asked if she might like a couple more. Absolutely, she said. (I’m almost positive that was Not her exact word. But it was a strong affirmative.)

Since we had that conversation (several weeks ago), my use of the handkerchief has evolved further still. I have had a beautiful purple hankie (with splashes of white flowers and green leaves) on the front porch table these last two days. It has mopped up tears (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr), the occasional sneeze, and the drips off glasses of iced tea. Also good for drying one’s brow on a humid day.

This is a part of my mother’s history that I cherish. Much like a paper clip, you can find endless uses for the handkerchief. Since I’m quite the neophyte, I know I’ve only scratched the surface.

Icked out about the reuse factor? The snotty handrag?

My handkerchief rule is this: Use it as long as it feels (and looks) soft and clean. As soon as it doesn’t feel soft and clean, replace. (If it’s a major cold, this could be several times a day.) I find I tend to go through 3-4 hankies a week. They take up practically zero space in the laundry, and then you’re set for another week.

I think I’m moving towards reducing tissue use by about 50%. That’s not a bad start.

Perhaps it’s time for a handkerchief revolution. They are practical, sustainable, and extremely versatile.

And often, quite beautiful.